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Mobile video conferencing not yet making for good mobile collaboration

Mobile video conferencing would seem to be an integral part of a good mobile collaboration strategy, but mobile video conferencing is ranked lower by mobile workers than other mobile collaboration tools.

Tom Nolle, President, CIMI Corp. Devising a mobile strategy is one of the most frustrating topics for enterprise operations planners. For many companies, mobile collaboration policies and the selection of mobile collaboration tools to support a solid mobile strategy are in a state of flux. At the same time, the way that mobile workers are best empowered is also changing as smartphones, tablets and netbooks compete with the classic laptops. Finally, the term collaboration is increasingly seen as including participation in video relationships, yet mobile video conferencing is more problematic than traditional video conferencing.

The kinds of activities that enterprises loosely group as "collaboration" are really best considered as two classes of activities. One, by far the more common, is supervisory support and involves ad hoc requests by subordinates for a decision or validation of an approach by their immediate superior. The second involves either organized or ad hoc group activity toward a common goal -- team-based production or decision making. Each of these requires different collaboration tools and a multi-layered mobile strategy.

Devising a mobile strategy for supervisory support

Supervisory support is a requirement for nearly all mobile workers, and it's the type of collaboration that workers report they are likely to be involved in while actually mobile and not just away from their desks. In the majority of cases, the collaboration is two-party (worker and supervisor), and in the majority of cases today, it's handled via voice calling. Slightly more than half the workers in a 2009 CIMI Corporation survey of collaborative behavior reported that they "regularly" wanted to share a document or draw a picture during these calls. In most cases, the exchange of media was handled via email, IM/MMS exchange, or in a physical meeting.

Nearly all the supervisory support collaborations reported in the survey were handled via mobile phones. Nine of every 10 were between workers in the same facility; one or both was a "corridor warrior" who had a regular desk but was often away from it. These workers had no interest in video links to aid in their interaction, and video support was the lowest priority in their device features list.

The downside of mobile video conferencing

Team-based collaboration is another matter. The same survey showed that the average size of a team was eight people, of whom five participated regularly enough that their absence was cause for rescheduling activity. 

The team size here is critical because decades of research in the use of technology to support collaboration -- most is available online under topics related to Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) -- has shown that there is little value to video augmentation of collaborative sessions involving fewer than four people, and no measurable value for only two.

Enterprises involved in team-based collaboration reported that mobile workers were regularly involved. More than 90% said that these workers were voice-conferenced into team meetings, and 69% said that voice conferencing was also used to link mobile workers into meetings that included video conferencing.

More than half the enterprises that had video conference meetings of teams and added mobile workers in voice-only mode said that having a video link to those workers would be helpful; but, interestingly, the number of mobile workers who believed that mobile video conferencing was helpful was much smaller -- less than 10%. The difficulty was that the mobile workers did not believe that they could participate effectively in mobile video conferencing. The reasons given were lack of facilities (82%), lack of network capacity to support connection (78%), and lack of privacy (65%). Only 8% of workers indicated that they had ever participated in a mobile teleconference while on the road; and in all cases, they used hotel or client site Internet connections and a laptop webcam.

Developing a mobile collaboration strategy

Here are the best practices for incorporating mobile collaboration into your enterprise mobile strategy:

  • Equip mobile workers with Wi-Fi laptops and netbooks for use in locations where Internet access is available, and rely on instant messaging, email and voice connections for all supervisory support collaboration and most team-based collaboration. Webcams can be used most effectively when the worker is in a hotel room or private facility and will neither interfere with others nor risk exposing confidential material during mobile video conferencing meetings.
  • Smartphones and 3G/4G services are excellent tools in supporting supervisory collaboration, particularly if they are equipped with IM/MMS capable of receiving simple diagrams or small documents. Current survey data suggests that a team meeting with mobile video conferencing via a smartphone is likely to be very distracting to all and minimally productive under most conditions. Finding a stable location to use an alternative device like a laptop is probably a better solution.
  • Laptop and netbook 3G/4G connections (dongles or built-in broadband wireless) can be extremely valuable in supporting team meetings, but it is important to test the video quality of such a service before relying on it for a meeting. Remember that poor video quality is more distracting to everyone than no video at all.

The ability to have mobile workers review and even change documents is probably the most important productivity issue in mobile collaboration. Not all mobile devices, especially smartphones, can display all of the content types that might be exchanged (documents, spreadsheets, presentations), and some file formats may require special applications to use at all. Most important, mobile devices like smartphones may not have a convenient portal through which the enterprise's applications can be accessed. Both team-based and supervisory support collaboration are often built around collective access to applications, and ensuring that such access is supported in some way is vital to collaboration success.

About the author: Tom Nolle is president of CIMI Corporation, a strategic consulting firm specializing in telecommunications and data communications since 1982. He is the publisher of Netwatcher, a journal addressing advanced telecommunications strategy issues.

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